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Ruhaniyat – A meeting of the Enlightened

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I just came back from what was surely one of the most mesmerizing evenings of my life. For four hours today, I felt one with nature, one with God and closer to my true love. There are times in life when one rejoices in the joy of others. Today was one such evening. Ruhaniyat- an all Indian Sufi and Mystic music festival was being held in Pune for the seventh year now. The setting couldn’t have been more spectacular. An open patch under the cover of centuries old Peepal and Banyan trees nestled in the heart of Pune cantonment. The Empress Botanical Garden; home to this festival in Pune, is one of the seven venues across the country to host this annual extravaganza. Ruhaniyat celebrates mystical music like no other. By promoting acts from the remotest parts of the country and introducing us to newer sounds from beyond our borders, Ruhaniyat, is slowly becoming a major platform for keeping the traditions of the mystics and the Sufis alive and kicking.

Unseen to prying eyes and unknown to most music lovers, the hills of Kashmir have safeguarded a wonderful tradition of Sufi mysticism and one of the finest exponents of Kashmiri Sufiana Kalam goes by the name of Ustad Abdul Rashid Hafiz. His group travelled three days to reach Pune and the journey seemed worth its weight in gold. There is something about Kashmir and its people that make every Indian’s heart skip a beat. They began with the mellow ‘Aaye Na Panau Sidras’ (a plea to the lord to help us transcend beyond materialistic pleasures), a composition of the great Sufi Lalleshwari (a 13th Century Sufi Practitioner).

As Mohd Maqbool strummed hearts with his Rhubaab and the percussionist played the beats of the Ghada (earthernware pot used for percussion) to the compositions of Momin Saab (‘Siri Bulbula Ranj Ras’), Shams Fakir (‘Ha Mukhta Haro’) and Rahim Saab (‘Jaan Vandiyon Haba Paan Vandiyon’), the crowd was mesmerized by the unusual and captivating Kashmiri dialect. ‘Ha Mukhta Haro’ was particularly engaging. It spoke about unconditional love in a way that few people can imagine. These compositions written hundreds of years ago still hold relevant messages and urge the world to move in the direction of love and respect for one’s soul. Ustad Abdul Rashid’s soulful voice gave this performance the much needed depth which was definitely the highlight of this performance.  A small solo on the Rhubaab that Mohd.Maqbool played before the start of the performance was also a noteworthy moment. Kashmiri Sufiana Kalam is soft and endearing just like the people of Kashmir. The perfect opening act to set the mood.

This was followed by a short performance of popular Punjabi Folk singer Barkat Sidhu who was supported on the Tabla by Shri Salimullah and by Deepak Rao on the Dholak [both from Hyderabad]. He displayed his flair for Punjabi Folk music by singing some of his popular Thappas (Folk love songs written as couplets) at the end, but another surprising aspect of his performance was his excellent repertoire of Sufi music. Love Ballads by Baba Bulleh Shah were the highlight of this performance. His aalaps were extremely fluid and the seamless transition from the mukhdaa to the anthraas was a joy to watch. His rendering of the famous Bulleh Shah number, ‘Bukkal De Vich Chor Kudey Si’ (The thief within me turns my world upside down) was a fantastic example of Light Folk music. His powerful voice and range and his sublime Harmonium playing were enthralling to say the least.

The third act of the evening was by far the most whimsical and captivating. I was eagerly impatient for the performance of renowned Baul artiste, Parvathy Baul. ‘Baul’ (Bengali for Madness) is the folk art of mystics of the east. Known for its description of everyday issues and its satirical take on social topics, Baul is one of the most inspiring and enriching mystic practices of Indian folk art. Usually a solo show where the vocals, rhythm and the music are the responsibility of the performing artiste, it is also touted as one of the most difficult. Baul singers are usually nomads. They dress in saffron robes and spend their days singing praises of the Almighty, admonishing ritualistic and materialistic practices. They live by nature’s rules and their songs and performances include aspects of Yogic life and philosophical mysticism. The first thing that struck me about the performer was her appearance. Matted locks, open hair that touched her ankles, add to it the saffron robes and the sheer joy of performing and you have a Baul singer in her element.

Parvathy mesmerized the audience with her rendering of the popular Baul song ‘Nigur Prem’ (a Lalan Fakir composition), a song about failure in love. During this song, there came a time when I stopped taking notes and making observations. Parvathy enraptured the entire audience taking them on a spiritual journey like never before. Her next song was Havre Goshai’s ‘Ananda Bhaja re Goshai’ (A song about the happiness of meeting one’s beloved). It was hard to imagine that this one was solo performance where she matched her voice with immaculate rhythms (the ektara) and percussion (a single tabla tied to her waist) and also danced as if in a trance. The high notes and the tenor of her singing was a revelation in itself. The sheer joy and mirth visible on her face when she swayed to the twang of her ektara and expounded her ballads was something that left an indelible mark on the audience. The crescendo of her act was definitely her final song, titled ‘Paa Dubaa Bee Na’, a Radha Raman composition. What began with a high pitched opening aalap (base tone), culminated into one of the finest displays of showmanship and performance art that I have ever come across.

As she crooned and explained why we should lie about the truth so that it stays hidden (‘Jolar Neeche Paa Duba Binaa’  literally means ‘Do not let him dip his feet into the water and know the depth’), I realized something – Baul music was Psychedelia in the purest sense and Parvathy Baul is the modern day torch-bearer of the Indian Psychedelic movement. The stability of her voice despite the constant moving, grooving and swaying was a hallmark of her competence and her talent as a performer. My first exposure to Live Baul music gave me everything I was looking for. Most of all, Parvathy Baul taught me how to revel in the joy of others. She ended with a prayer, a hymn if you will, praising and hailing our gods, nature, the fakirs and our holy spirits. I was too tempted to give her a standing ovation but the mostly senior crowd was a slight deterrent. They remained restrained in their post performance applause although it was a prolonged one.

The next performance was a famous Rajasthani Maanganiyaar group led by Kachra Khan. The desert sands of the Thar have produced some of the most alluring performers of Rajasthani folk music. The Kachra Khan group come with a reputation far superior and greater than many such groups in existence today. A little known fact about the Maanganiyaar community is that they were the official custodians of birth and death records in Rajasthan before the modern day birth certificate was introduced. What’s more intriguing is that the records were not archived but orally passed down from generation to generation.

Maanganiyaars have gained a reputation of being electric performers. But they chose this occasion to display a more sober side of their music. Inspired by Baba Bulle Shah’s hymns and Sachal Sai’s compositions, they slowly built up the tempo over the three songs they performed. They never went all out and that was a slight letdown for me. The support vocals led by Kachra Khan’s son Shafi Khan were good, but Shafi was nowhere near the class of his father. The vocals were tepid in some places and he lost his sur on a couple of other occasions. His aalaps were also fantastic and the whole group were extremely tight and precise with their breaks and harkats [nuances added to certain lines in a song]. The accompanying artistes were fantastic. The sarod and Kanaicha players were in complete harmony with the vocals and their intro music especially for Bulleh Shah’s ‘Ishq Saraa Kyun Lage Kaaziyaa’ (Why discriminate in love for others, O learned Kaazi ?) was superb. This song also had a three to four minute long aalap with Kachra Khan and Shafi alternating. The sheer range of their voice was a revelation in itself.

Pin drop silence in the audience as they did justice to the wonderful ambience of the Empress Botanical Gardens. Watching the Maanganiyaas performing is like poetry in motion; not a beat out of place and not a drop in tempo for even a second. However, the show stopper and scene stealer in this act was the Khartaal Player, Tassu Khan. Khartaal is a simple pair of wooden blocks which are clapped together to create some unique sounds and rhythm. Tassu Khan was flamboyant and very gregarious as he displayed his flair with the instrument. The sound of the khartaal stood out amidst the overlapping vocals, the sarod and the dholak of Kachra Khan’s group.

The final act, a jugalbandi (percussion jam) of the dholak and khartaal almost lifted the crowd to its feet. You could see the pain in Tassu Khan’s face as he went about continuously playing the Khartaal at breakneck speed. It showed how even with years of dedicated riyaaz (practice), it is difficult to master the khartal. The jugalbandi was lethal to say the least. The mad jerks of the head, the raising of the hands, pure showmanship and above all, perfect unison in the rhythm of the dholak and the khartal led the audience screaming for more. Ruhaniyat was finally alive and the Maanganiyaars had stayed true to their tradition. This superb act was followed by a 15-minute break before the final performance.

The grand finale, the final act was a Qawwali performance by the renowned Chisti Brothers from Moradabad. Led by Sarfaraz Chisti, a flamboyant and revered personality in the Hindi Sufi Kalam (genre), there was little doubt as to why they were asked to perform last. The preceding artistes had teased the audience with their mystical music. The Chisti brothers however literally ragged the audience with their fun-filled performance. They chose three Amir Khusro (One of Akbar’s Navaratnas) songs and a Shraagasi composition. Their performance began with the extremely popular ‘Chhaap Thilak Sab Chheni Mohse Naina Milaaike’ (You took everything I own with just one gaze). Everything about this performance spoke of pure class.

The harmoniums held at an angle, the interruptions in the flow of a song to explain the meaning of the following verse, the improvisations on certain parts of the songs; take ‘Inhonen Saikdon Aashiq Kareeb Maare Hain’ (She has killed hundreds of romantics with her gaze) for example. The Chisti brothers won me over just by this one line. Sarfaraz Chisti and his band of brothers sang this one line in about ten different ways with a variety of Harkats and Nakhras (nuances) to have the audience cheering them for more. The use of a single word like Kyun or an ada like Ohoho and ahaha lent a rustic charm to this performance. Qawwali is an absolute delight to watch. The fact that they sang songs in Urdu and Hindi made it all the more easy for the group to connect with the audience.

The next song, a Sharaagasi number called ‘Yeh Jalwa yaar Ka hain Main Nahin hun’ (It is not me but my love who has the magic) was an ode to love. It spoke about finding love within oneself and how different hallucinations and experiences accentuate this feeling. It spoke about how love can make you see things nothing else can. Again the highlights in this (almost) 20 minute long song were the improvisations. Pointing at the sky and gesturing to the audience, Sarfaraz Chisti was all heart. However, Khusro was the flavour of this performance. Two more songs by the master poet; ‘Kahu Kaise Saki Mohe Laaj Lage’ (How do I express my love, I feel shy my dear) and the emphatic ‘Rang’ (Colour) opened my eyes to a whole new genre of music that I never previously thought existed.

The final song, ‘Rang’ spoke about how colourful each day on this earth was and how every aspect of one’s life tends to add colour to the bigger picture. I heard the words Masjid, Mandir, Ram, Krishna, Baba Saeed and Hazrat Nizamuddin being sung together in a single breath. This was divinity in its most enticing form. I heard Muslim Qawwali singers singing in chaste Hindi and praising Hindu Gods. This song and this performance really touched a chord with me. As Sarfaraz Chisti brought the performance to a close with arms raised, a spontaneous Subhanallah escaped my lips. This performance deserved the standing ovation it got and I wasn’t surprised when I realised that I along with so many of the audience members had been Qawalli-clapping for a good 30 minutes now. This music fest was not just another brilliant concert. It was an experience for the senses. Seeing these great acts made me feel extremely fortunate because I realised what a loss it is for people who do not have the sensibility to appreciate this genre of music.

The only thing that I felt was lacking in the entire event was programmed lighting. It could have done wonders to the already spectacular ambience of the venue. A slight improvement on this front would have taken this to another level altogether; a minor glitch in the entire setup if anything.

I was finally beginning to understand what Sufism and Mysticism was all about. It is not about a Muslim Qawwali or a Hindu Baul singer singing songs about the Almighty or the love that we feel for Him. As a matter of fact, it has nothing to do with religion or rituals. It had a plain and simple message – Love transcends all things materialistic. It was about feeling one with your soul and blurring the line between realism and surrealism that Ruhaniyat achieved with pin point perfection. I looked at my watch and realized that this experience had lasted for a full four hours and I came back home more content and happy than I’d been in months. As I closed my eyes to sleep, I saw a dream. I was back at the venue, this time empty. But I could still hear the soulful songs of the great mystics who spread their magic that night. Even the trees swayed in agreement, their rustling leaves only prodding and teasing me to dream more.

I quote the great Sufi Saint Idries Shah as I conclude –  “Enlightenment must come little by little-otherwise it would overwhelm.”

Ruhaniyat gave me a taste of what Mystic music has to offer. It has initiated me into a deeper study of its meaning and the eternal truth of life. Understanding the true message of the mystics will take time but I am on that path now. This is not a concert review because it wasn’t a brilliant concert but an inexplicable experience for the senses.

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